This Sunday afternoon, in celebration of my 20 years of service, Calvary Community Church will be putting on a luncheon in my honor. While I loathe being the center of attention, I am grateful for the gesture of love and appreciation. The irony of this event is that, while it recognizes that I have been pastoring the same church for two decades, I have not actually been pastoring in the same ministry for 20 years. In a post a few weeks ago, I wrote that most of the congregants have changed over my tenure. But that is not the only thing that has changed since 1997.
Our culture, and therefore our church’s ministry, has changed in the last few years. Some of these changes have been stylistic – from organ accompaniment to piano or from singing with hymnals in hand to projecting digital images of lyrics – but some of the changes have been profound:
- Our society was changed by terrorism (September 11, 2001) – our world, including our expressions of faith, changed when planes crashed into the World Trade Center Towers, the Pentagon and a field in rural Pennsylvania. Some were drawn to God, some were repelled. But ministry changed…we were no longer invincible, no longer safe, no longer favored. New questions were raised and doubts about God’s benevolence and power surfaced, leaving the church to offer hope to the newly hopeless.
- Our society redefined tolerance (November 18, 2003) – our moral landscape changed when the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts upheld a lower court’s ruling in the case of Goodridge v. Dept. of Public Health, thereby legalizing the marriage of two consenting adults without regard to gender. The law of the land (ultimately upheld by the Supreme Court of the US) thus conflicted with the traditional interpretation of the Bible and local congregations were required to again consider questions thought inconceivable to prior generations.
- Our society was given untethered access to technology (June 29, 2007) – our understanding of media and knowledge changed when Apple released the IPhone, allowing anyone with the resources to afford the phone and the service plan access to the internet virtually anywhere. Seemingly overnight, we went from transferring information conversationally to transferring it electronically. We heightened our levels of awareness and distraction with our ability to record and transmit everything. We began engaging in social media and neglected social interaction. The church, whether it was ready or not, was required to engage with the digital world while maintaining its historically relational and textual characteristics.
- Our society embraced a new form of activism (September 17, 2011) – our involvement with the world around us changed when people gathered for Occupy Wall Street, ushering in a new style of activism that blended the orchestration of peaceful assembly with the spontaneity of a flash mob. Diverse groups of individuals were able to communicate their dissatisfaction with cultural oppression en masse, without designated leadership, and have their voices heard. This led to other groups (e.g. Black Lives Matter and Women’s March) raising awareness of the plight of the disadvantaged. The church, who has championed the cause of the downtrodden for centuries, is now beginning to embrace this social activism as young Christians lead the saints into a world where there is justice for all.
Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. Hebrews 13:8 (NIV)
In a few weeks, I am going to participate in a young man’s Ordination Council (a gathering of denominational leaders who interact with a candidate’s statement of theology, challenging the candidate to think deeply about their philosophy and content of ministry). I remember my Ordination Council in 1999. I was so young, so naïve, so sure of what I believed. Then, over the past two decades, the landscape shifted in profound ways. However, no matter how the culture may change, the Christ remains the same. The message has never wavered, whether it is recorded in ink or pixels. A culture worried with terrorism and wearied by intolerance has been washed in the Blood of Jesus. A culture steeped in technology and straining for justice has been saved from sin through the sacrifice. The church has changed over the past twenty years – as the adage goes, “You could not step twice into the same river” – but the Gospel remains the same. And so we shall continue to share the good news until all have heard it.
Twenty years ago today (September 1, 1997) I began serving as the pastor of Calvary Community Church in Dorchester. I have been thinking about this day, and this posting, for quite a while, wondering what I would say about my tenure as a minister of the gospel in the greatest community in the world. I thought about the numbers relating to ministry – attendance figures, baptisms and weddings I had performed, babies I had dedicated, or sermons I delivered – but, to be honest, these numbers would be unimpressive. I thought about sharing interesting anecdotes about the church, but I have already shared most of these stories with those reading this and my remaining stories would be uninteresting. In the end, all I have are the lessons I have learned over all these years.
First, I have learned to cherish the relationships that God has given me while I am blessed to have them. While the numbers of worshippers have not appreciably changed in the last two decades, the people have; in fact, I count three (and 8/9th) people that were present on my first Sunday still regularly attending worship. Some have gone on to glory, others have moved out of the area and others attend other churches. Yet, through all the transition, God has blessed us with visitors, musicians and co-laborers who have expanded our world, challenged our complacency and enhanced our worship. I praise God that so many have called Calvary home for a week, a season, a year or longer.
Then, I have learned to seize the opportunities that God has given me when I recognize them. While I have not been given a city-wide or national stage to proclaim the gospel, I have been blessed to share God’s love with our neighbors. Praying at a Flag Day program, talking in a front yard, serving water at the Dorchester Day Parade and welcoming the community for public events are just a few things that come to mind when I consider how God is working through our church. I praise God that we have impacted so many lives, inside and outside the walls of our building, in so many interesting ways.
Finally, I have learned to appreciate the faithfulness that God has lavished upon me all the time. While I have never, in my tenure at Calvary, enjoyed an abundance of resources, God has always given me and my family (immediate and church) what is sufficient for my needs. We’ve paid our bills (mostly on time), had the volunteers and musicians, maintained a residence and been cared for. God’s faithfulness is ever-present – in forgiving my sin and fixing my lapses in judgement, in bringing in saints every single Sunday, in always giving me a word to share. All that I have done is because God has enabled me. I praise God for all of it.
Praise the LORD, all you servants of the LORD who minister by night in the house of the LORD. Psalm 134:1 (NIV)
So much has changed over the last two decades, but then again, so much remains the same. God is still drawing wonderful people to our little church, still affording us opportunities for gracious interactions and still showering us with His great faithfulness. Until that changes, I will be here wondering how God will next work among us. I hope you will be here, too.
Today my wife, Jeanine, and I celebrate our twenty-seventh wedding anniversary. Our life together all these years remains a wonderful journey through the peaks and valleys of life. We have enjoyed our share of highs and lows – birthdays and hospital visits, days on vacation and days on unemployment, nights of singing and nights of shouting. We’ve now lived in six different places in two different cities, been blessed with four wonderful children and have shared more memories than we could possibly recount. In all this time, I have come to realize that I am not good alone: underneath my veneer of independence I really cannot survive by depending upon the wits and wile of my self-determination. I need someone beyond myself.
All this reminds me of an incident a bit more than two weeks ago. We were about to move from one apartment in the city to another and had rented a truck from U-Haul to assist us. Because of the volume of college students entering the city, moving vans were scarce in the Boston area and we were required to reserve our vehicle about 40 miles away. When we arrived at the rental agent’s ‘office’ (actually a car wash with a large parking lot), I gave my name and was promptly told that there was no reservation. The rest is a blur – “call ‘Go U-Haul’”; disconnected; called again and disconnected again; “Your reservation was cancelled at five yesterday”; disconnected again; “We can get you a new truck but it will not be available for two hours” – except that I felt that the future of our move was at the mercy of an unseen authority.
As I stood in that parking lot, unsure of what to do to make our move possible, I realized my own limits. I could not make it right through my own efforts or ingenuity…and that is when I slowly and deliberately chose to trust in the unseen authority (not the customer service representative at U-Haul but the Lord Almighty). I determined to believe that either we were going to secure a moving van of some sort or God would give us another night at our previous residence. It is a lesson that I am being taught daily: in the minute details of a truck reservation and in the broad strokes of married life – God is in control; I am always at the mercy of an unseen authority.
Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus clear the way for us to come to you. 1 Thessalonians 3:11 (NIV)
It is humbling to know that all that we have and all that we accomplish is fully dependent upon the guiding hand of God. It is also comforting to know that all that we have and all that we accomplish is fully dependent upon the guiding hand of God. My growing edge remains in being faithful – faithful to my wife (my earthly treasure from God) and faithful to the Lord (the One who bestows every good gift). It is good to be reminded that He is faithful – as I celebrate twenty-seven incredible years with an incredible woman and as I come to end of my resolve in a lot in North Grafton and have only the Lord to rely on. We all can stand to be reminded that God IS in control.
I thank God for all His many blessings, and today, in particular, I praise Him for Jeanine (indeed, my better half).
My wife and I just returned from New York City where we celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary. We had a wonderful time without the kids – staying at a cozy vintage hotel, sitting in the audience of three different television shows, catching a Broadway play while it was still in previews and eating out at some fabulous restaurants. It was a joy to be with Jeanine and experience new things as a couple, including Peruvian food and the Central Park Carousel. Whether we were walking through Times Square or taking the subway to 96th Street, we were together. It was a great few days.
Being in New York has reminded me of some of the lessons I’ve learned though a quarter-century of marriage.
- Perception is not reality. In New York, we saw four stages and all of them were dressed to trick the eyes: we were not really in a producer’s bedroom, a friend’s kitchen, a host’s living room or a large open brick meeting hall. In marriage, the perception of the wedding – a princess and her groom being pampered in every conceivable manner – quickly fades and the reality of two intensely individual people sharing life and space just as quickly emerges. The hope is that we hold onto what is real and not what we imagine.
- Small pleasures are often the sweetest. In New York, some of the most pleasant moments were not extravagant or expensive, whether it be walking above the traffic in the High Line Park or sampling blueberry balsamic in Chelsea Markets. In marriage, there are little joys just about every day, like wildflowers blooming through the cracks of the sidewalk, and the sum total of these tiny delights far outweigh the seldom but more spectacular celebrations a couple may enjoy. Savor the small things and your heart will always have joy.
- Life is not a vacation. In New York, we stayed in a hotel and ate out for every meal; there were no concerns for dirty laundry, dirty dishes or dirty floors. In marriage, all these things are present in abundance. Vacations are important, but few have the resources to maintain that lifestyle. In long-haul marriages, the couple expects to work and struggle for a majority of the time, and in the mundane things appreciate the efforts of the other.
- If it is important, it is worth planning. Weeks before our trip, we made arrangements for the tickets, the trains and the accommodations that made the time away a blessing. In marriage, a modicum of thought and effort goes a long way; with a little planning, couples build memories and lives of love and commitment.
We had such a good time spending 3 days in the Big Apple, but we’ve had an even better time celebrating love and married life for the previous 9,130 days. Thank you, Jeanine, for sharing this wonderful, trying and strange life with me.
“Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you….” Ecclesiastes 9:9
“May your fountain be blessed, and may you rejoice in the wife of your youth.” Proverbs 5:18